Category Archives: Costume Drama

Mission Cleopatra

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I’m watching Mission Cleopatra with my 8 year-old daughter. It’s a funny film. Her choice. She plucked it from the plethora available, avoiding the usual Simpsons or the good/awful Grammy performances we’ve been making our way through.

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I recently turned her on to the Asterix books I loved as a child, so I thought it might be fun to see the film. But I must say it seems to lack the magic of the original Goscinny and Uderzo books. Maybe it’s because I’m not French, or because it’s live action (filled with seemingly-hammy French actors) that it seems a bit flat. The fact that the fine comic French actors are over-dubbed with dry American voices close mic-ed in a dull/dead studio certainly doesn’t help. There seems little atmosphere, no charm. The wonderfully barrel-chested Gerard Depardieu/Obelix voiced by an empty US teenage voice just sounds weird.

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But my 8 year-old thinks it’s ‘great’. She loves the original book. Likes things French. Has a francophone mother. Is fascinated by Egypt. Adores the Egyptians in Horrible Histories. Often dances to their Lady Gaga-themed Rah-Rah-Cleopatra song. Is slowly making her way through an Older Fiction ‘autobiography’ of Cleopatra from the library, saying names like Berenice and Ptolomy in her own 8-year old way.

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Last week we started watching a cool BBC documentary called ‘Immortal Egypt’ which has made ancient Egypt a lot clearer to me than it has ever been. I finally understand the difference between Upper and Lower Egypt, and the three different kingdoms, thanks to the captivatingly passionate professor who has to shade her pasty Brit skin from the Egyptian sun with an umbrella employed for its proper purpose.

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Me, I’ve always been much more into the Romans. And, to a lesser degree, the Greeks. Which may be why I have always had more of a taste for the Ptolomys, the Greco/Egyptian dynasty founded by Alexander’s general, Ptolomy, who started the line that ended when Cleopatra went out with a bang with Mark Antony having moved on from lover #1, Mr. Caesar (who every Asterix fan knows is a big-nosed pompous arse).

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But enough history.

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The film is full of gags. While Starkius and Hutchkis racing off in a chariot is wasted on my girl, she gets the Star Wars references about an evil empire. And the Gluteus Maximus gag.

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Yes. It’s fun. Bang crash. Very French. Yes, my girl loves it. Has asked to get the Asterix book out from the library again.

But, again, enough history. I am having bean bags thrown at me. I shall stop tapping away on the tablet.

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Time to play Asterix and Obelix. Gauls fighting Romans. Egyptians on the side.

Vivien Leigh in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) 2

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The Americans

jYQdyGu9tl75VThe Americans is an unusual type of period drama. It takes place c.1980, a time that may seem too close to now to be ‘historical’. But 35 years is a lifetime ago and The Americans is an engrossing Cold War drama that follows a pair of Russian spies embedded in Washington DC at the start of Reagan’s reign. He may be about to (arguably) take out the ‘Evil Empire’ but no one knew it at the time.

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Not your usual kitchen-sink drama

The CIA is funding the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan (thereby turning them into Al Qaeda) and the KGB is tasked to stop them. Who do you back? There are no cell-phones or internet, computers are rudimentary and wigs, alcohol and sex are as important as guns. Like a lot of American drama, it has family at its core albeit a marriage where the couple put on disguises to get close to targets, have sex with them, manipulate/blackmail and/or kill them. They then go home to look after their oblivious teenage children (who become less clueless as the story develops).

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The All-American family. Kind of…

This may seem too unreal to take, but the conceit works. This is down to very good acting and storytelling that doesn’t play it for big drama or simple laugh-at-the-‘80s-clothes/hair yuks. It is restrained and dark, shot in a beautiful palette of browns and muted colours that somehow suggests the era while keeping a contemporary coolness. The fact that it is created and produced by an ex-CIA officer probably helps, too.

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Adding to the drama, their neighbour is an FBI agent. But instead of the obvious tension this could create, it is played more like the Walter/Hank Breaking Bad dynamic where keeping enemies close is an opportunity to exploit them. Do you want the Ruskies to triumph? Well, no, they can’t… but you don’t want Stan the FBI guy to win or be humiliated, either. And by series three the KGB are trying to take down the racist South African regime that Reagan and Thatcher supports. Um…

THE AMERICANS -- "Arpanet" -- Episode 7 (Airs Wednesday, April 9, 10:00 PM e/p) -- Pictured: (L-R) Annet Mahendru as Nina Sergeevna, Lev Gorn as Arkady Ivanovich -- CR: Patrick Harbron/FX

Nina and Arkady

One of my favourite aspects is the Russian embassy controlling the spies. These parts are in Russian with English subtitles, and it’s a treat to listen to. The actors are so stylish and no one trusts anyone. For good reason. A gulag in Siberia is hanging over all their heads. Nina, the young manipulated-by-both-sides double agent, is outstandingly; hard and heart-breaking. (As a counter-point, it’s good to see Richard ‘John-Boy Walton’ Thomas as the head of the FBI… but his strength seems to be in marching from A to B barking orders).

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The FBI guys

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Philip seducing a stoned minor

With the third series it has really developed into something special. There are some outstanding scenes. It’s one thing seducing the hapless secretary of the FBI boss chasing you. It’s something else to be told to seduce and smoke pot with the wayward 15 year-old daughter of a CIA operative (especially when you have a daughter the same age). The moral complexities are delicious. There are no laughs, which is often a negative for me, but the conflicted and twisted beauty of the story has the series win awards for writing, best drama series and acting.

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The pretend couple don’t always have to pretend

For those used to traditional Tudor/Victorian/Regency historical ‘frock’ drama, this may not suit. But if you like tight, gripping storytelling and tasteful period recreation (as I do) The Americans is a must. I can’t wait for the next series.

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Vikings

I’m a bit in love with Vikings. No, not the cuddly trainers of dragons or opera-hatted anachronisms used to promote small New Zealand Scandi-towns; I’m referring to the History channel series that has just started its third season. It’s pretty darn good.

vikings_season3_castOf course, it depends what you’re looking for. Me, I have a particular love for what I call period drama, that is, drama set some time in the past. Now, just playing dress ups and talking funny doesn’t do it for me, there is plenty of awful period drama (no need to list them). In order to win my heart it has to be great as a story/show, too (see my Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire raves). And going by these first 2 seasons I would say Vikings looks likely to fit into the pantheon of great TV being produced in this so-called ‘Golden-Age’ of television.

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The Pilgrimage to Uppsala. A stunning episode

It certainly ticks most of the boxes of GA: gorgeous to look it, outstanding sets and costumes, intriguing and strong acting (except for 2 who let the side down), storylines that crack along and don’t wallow in melodrama or soap. It even has that great hallmark of the GA, cracking opening titles which even when you are bingeing (as I do) you have to watch all the way through to enter the world (the sawing cello, pitch-shifted vocals, the undersea shots of the longboats, waves crashing, bodies and loot sinking into the abyss… as tightly edited as a music video).

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Ragnar casually leads another raid

The story centres on Ragnar Lothbrok, a Viking celebrated in Norse sagas, and his rise from farmer (who does a bit of raiding on the side) to king leading the historical raids on Lindisfarne, Paris and so on.

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Lagertha in action

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The wonderful Sigi

To be honest, while I have binged both series twice, it took me a couple of attempts to watch the first episode as I’m not so keen on watching a whole lot of action fighting and gore. But that is not the core of Vikings. Like every other good GA show, it is about negotiating family relationships, and Ragnar’s wife, shield-maiden Lagertha, is as kick-arse a character (and actor) as Ragnar. As in the real world, there are strong women involved both fighting at the shield wall and plotting behind it.

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King Ecbert of Wessex. Wonderful character (and actor)

From a historical perspective, it is fantastic to see the interactions with the various English kings like Ecbert of Wessex, Aella of Northumbria and the nasty Mercians. None of it is straightforward; everyone is plotting, making alliances and breaking them. It creates a dramatic tension of a good ‘page-turner’ where you want to flip ahead to see what happens (or just watch one more episode even though you really need to go to bed).

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Sneaky Jarl Borg

It also portrays the Vikings as they probably were, united in convenience, treacherous and jealous when looking for advantage. It is refreshing to see this reality rather than a Hollywood simplicity of goodies versus baddies.

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Rollo leaps the shield wall

And the battles are some of the most realistic I have seen, you get to know what is happening, not just close-ups of grunting men and gore. The geography and narrative of what is happening is never lost and, most of all, there are consequences to action. Hands down, some of the best medieval fighting I have seen filmed.

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Athelstan: Northumbrian monk/Viking slave/Pagan Viking/Priest

It is also very clever in the way it portrays and negotiates the various languages that are spoken. We switch effortlessly from Old Norse to Old English and back via occasional sub-titles and convenient translators in a seamless and entertaining way.

So why do I qualify my love for this series? Because it lacks the sparkling, brilliant dialogue of other GA TV. And, at times, it seems full of explanation. Yes, it is needed to a degree (and the character of the captured priest is a great vehicle for this) but I can’t help but groan when, yet again, I hear someone say “that is a…. we Vikings do that because…”

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Floki the Boatbuilder (and lover of Loki)

It is also somewhat lacking in humour. I don’t expect lots of jokes, but these are meant to be real people, albeit seriously tough nuts. Humour makes us human and even shows as dark as Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men or Game of Thrones, manage to throw in gems of dialogue and regularly unexpected belly laughs.

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Young Bjorn. Outstanding wee actor (unlike the walking abs that replace him)

There are also some historical howlers which, in their way, are as laughable as opera-inspired Viking hats (I won’t mention them. Like cow horns on a helmet, once you know, it’s impossible to un-see them).how_to_train_your_dragon_2_banner-wide

But, overall, these are minor quibbles. As I said, I am transfixed. The characters are lovable, the story grabs you, it has spectacle, excitement and tenderness.

And maybe like all new loves, it is good to be a little unsettled, to hold something back in reserve.

I can’t wait to see what happens in the third series.

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Farvel Dannevirke!

The End of a Story

I see it is 6 weeks since my last post. That’s way too long. I have composed many in my head but as spring has kicked into gear life has become way too hectic to find time to explore my thoughts. I guess I’m still too much of a writer to just bash something out and post it. It must be more than mere typing or letting off steam to warrant the effort of crafting something worth reading.

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Life’s a beach, dress appropriately

Everyone has a life to live so what have I been doing that has sucked up my time? Basically, the spare time I would have devoted to writing has been…

1. pushed into a gym membership to take up aqua-jogging and gentle treadmill running as I work on a slow recovery from an operation I had on my heel to correct my Haglund’s Deformity in November last year. The results are very encouraging but if I don’t go a few times a week my recovering fitness drops off fast… a sign I’m a lot older than I think I am. Still, must be patient, it’s a 2 year road back to being 100%, so I’m told.

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Looking forward to getting my dancing shoes back on

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My living room

2. prepping the house for major renovations that started 3 weeks ago. As I write this interior and exterior walls are out, ceilings gone, there’s a giant hole in the floor, and I am protected from a near gale and heavy rain by some impressive looking building paper. It’s not as dire a picture as those words may paint. I actually find the sound of loud rain on a tin roof cosy and reassuring. But there are piles of crap everywhere that need sorting, shifting and resorting.

3. after over 3 years of estrangement from serious engagement with writing fiction, I have started an online course, going deeper than just banging out partial first drafts (I started blogging a year ago to try and find a path back to fiction). In fact, the momentum has allowed me to delve into unfinished stories untouched since I lost the heart for fiction when my mother got sick in May 2011.

But the actual reason I’ve been motivated to write this is that a story I dearly love is about to end tonight. I’m referring to Boardwalk Empire, the HBO costume drama set during the US Prohibition.2926045-boardwalk_empire_season_2_sezonul_2_wallpaper_cast

In case you watch the show, let me reassure you that I will not be giving away any of the story, but I will be referring to aspects of it.

I credit my mother with giving me a love of costume drama. Yes, my fascination with history plays into it. I find it physically thrilling to see the unseen recreated. I vividly remember my excitement at being allowed to stay up late to watch BBC period dramas with exotic clothes and adult themes like Therese Raquin, I, Claudius, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or the Australian Against the Wind, For The Term of His Natural Life, and the US mini-series Roots and Shogun. (Not forgetting New Zealand’s, The Governor). So much to marvel at, learn and enjoy. And BE excels in that it recreates a time much overlooked by television, the 1920s. The obvious reason for this neglect is that it costs a lot more to make a drama that needs all its sets and costumes made from scratch. Of course, product placement, that major funder of TV drama has no obvious place in the past, making it yet more expensive to produce.

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Margaret and Nucky ruling the Empire

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Naughty old 1931 Margaret

I watched the Martin Scorsese-directed first episode when visiting my mother in Ashburton in 2010. Despite my love of the genre, I hadn’t been intending to watch it, but my mother was keen so I watched it with her. To be honest, I was kind of bored by the brooding slowness but in her quietly perceptive way Mum unpicked the story and guessed what was happening from the first shot of Margaret Shroeder.

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Miss Lucy Danziger takes the cake (and has some of the best lines)

When I returned to Wellington, I kept up with the show, slowly becoming a major fan of so many aspects of the production. The stories, the acting, the music, the recreations of real people (Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Myer Lansky, Jack Dempsey, Eddie Cantor, Joe Kennedy etc etc). It is full of what my mother called ‘character actors’ i.e. not the best looking actors. It’s something she always admired about English drama, which avoided the commercial pressure to to turn everything into a love story between beautiful people (or a battle between goodies and baddies). And the casting of non-leading man Steve Buscemi as the protagonist, Nucky Thompson (a good-ish baddie), shows that the US has finally caught up during this so-called ‘Golden Age’ of TV drama (Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones etc).

Now, during the 5th and final season, I have gone back to the start and watched every episode again as the final (short season of) 8 episodes play, and I am loving it even more. Like a great novel, it rewards repeated engagement. The layers of each season all relate to each other and nothing is out of place. It’s all about lost boys and naughty girls, powerful women and powerless tough guys. Broken families and the power of family.

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Van Alden and Sigrid, comedy gold

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Gillian and Jimmy. Ever-loving mother and son

At the same time I have been following the fan reaction on the BE Facebook page and it has been totally intriguing. Like 90% of the internet, there are a lot of grumpy people totally missing the point.

A great bug-bear seems to be the heavy use of flash-backs in this final season. People keep saying that they should have been at the start, that they are boring. That the writers don’t know what they are doing. I couldn’t disagree more.

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Nucky and Eli in 1884

I’m with the 10% who believe the flashbacks are sublime, opening up the story in a way that is both hugely entertaining and rewarding.

Not only have all the previous story-lines taken on a richer tone, but it has been simply astounding to see how well the young actors inhabit Nucky, Gillian, the Commodore et al, going beyond simple mimicry to adding unexpected understanding to the story.

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Richard and Emma. Some of the most intriguing acting I have ever seen

I could rave on and on, how I loved all the music, Chalky White and his night club. The laugh-out-loud deadpan comedy of Van Alden (and wife). Half-faced WWI veteran Richard Harrow and his stunningly weird twin sister…

The thing is, all good things must end and nothing worthwhile goes on forever. The characters look old and tired. The perky optimism of the early 1920s has given way to the the darkness of the early ’30s.

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Van Alden, funniest deadpan since Buster Keaton

Mirroring the fate of many viewer’s favourite character, Jimmy (the broken, impatient lost boy), my mother died at the end of series 2. My father joined her 4 months later. That 1-2 punch, so close together, has made the last few years a time of constant reevaluation of my life. There has been no room for writing fiction when all I do is question life. Like Nucky in this final season, everything plays through a lens of constant flashbacks and reassessment.

On the last night I spent with my mother we watched a costume drama, Reese Witherspoon’s Vanity Fair. It was lush, sumptuous with a lot of money on the screen. There was a heap of great acting but everything good came from the novel and we both agreed it wasn’t a patch on the BBC adaptation. They had gone too Hollywood, attempting to make the awful protagonist Becky Sharpe (Reese) a misunderstood American striver. It killed the story.

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Corrupt ‘family man’ Eli makes a point

As I anticipate the final show I can’t help wishing my mother was here to watch it with me, so I could have the benefit of her opinion.

In a way, I believe she will be in the form of the love she gave me for wonderful drama.

Like all the fans, I don’t want BE to end. But the story has played out. It remains beautiful and clever. Rich and deep, funny and perceptive.

And that will never change.

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